This is how they came: like salmon hurtling upstream, thrusting their way out of the water and onto the shore. It started with a great storm, lightning streaking across the sky, waves swelling. I smelled them from the road outside the house—like the underside of a lily pad, like sleepy breath. We saw a swarm of them kneeling in the sand, the moonlight reflecting off of their bare skin, the mounds on their chests heaving with exhaustion. They were humming in a chorus.
We lowered our guns.
That’s how our mother came: like a message in a bottle, a secret washed up on the beach.
At first, our mother was shy. She slept in the pantry and shivered when any of us came into the kitchen. I heard her hum through the walls when I was in bed. It was the inside of a seashell. It was being under water.
We still had school in the kitchen, taught by Michael, the oldest. We sat at the table and learned arithmetic and reading and writing.
The rains that came with our mother didn’t let up. The yard flooded and mirrored the house. When I looked out the window, I saw myself stretched out and blurred in the other house in the water, little droplets obscuring my face into something monstrous.
At lunchtime, we had to reach over our mother to get the bread and cans of tuna. We ate our sandwiches without speaking.
Our mother got up from the floor of the pantry, her hair drooping like seaweed over her face. Her body was wrapped in the kind of towel Father gave us on chilly mornings on the boat. She stepped into the kitchen, eyes wide like the fat blueberries we picked out back in the summer. She was sniffing the air, a bloodhound, locking her eyes onto our food.
Michael held his sandwich out to her. She paused. Eyed him. Eyed us. A wild creature assessing a threat. She snatched the sandwich from Michael’s hand and retreated to the pantry. Later, we found the two pieces of bread thrown back into the kitchen, the fish juice sucked out.
Father made a sleeping place for our mother in his bedroom—a pile of freshly dried towels in the corner of the room. He added one of the pillows from his bed and rearranged the pile until it looked its utmost comfortable.
When Father went to the kitchen to escort our mother to her new bed, he told us all to wait in the living room.
We don’t want to startle her, he said.
So, we waited. Michael stood with his ear to the door. Toby and I sat on the couch. Toby kept pinching my arm and no matter how much I pinched him back, he wouldn’t stop.
Michael, I said, Toby’s pinching me.
Michael looked at the two of us with eyes sharp as thorns and held his finger over his lips.
We sat still and silent for a few moments. Out the window, I could see the fog rolling off the cliffs on the far side of the bay. Toby and I were planning an expedition there. There was treasure in a cave about a day’s walk away. Before the rains, we’d hike into the woods every day after our lessons to verify the existence of a particular tree or creek, it’s relation to the water, to the cliffside, the house. We’d record them on our map. We were planning slow because we were planning right.
Once the rains started, though, we were locked up in the house. Our plans, delayed. We couldn’t verify any of the trails we were making on our map. With all the fog, we couldn’t even see the other side of the bay.
There was a crashing sound so loud it shook the house.
Michael flung the door open. Toby and I ran after him.
Father had our mother by the wrist. She was on the ground in the pantry, her legs open, feet held on either side of the door frame, an entire shelf of tuna cans scattered on the floor around her. Her eyes were closed and she was making a humming sound like something electric. Between our mother’s legs, I saw a darkness like the moss that grows on the rocks by the water.
Let go of her, Michael yelled.
Father’s face was scrunched up, his lips tight. He turned his head to Michael and dropped our mother’s arm.
He kicked one of the tuna cans into the wall across the room and stormed out the door into the flooded yard.
Our mother curled herself back into the pantry, sliding the tuna cans across the floor, squeezing her body under the bottom shelf. The hum ceased. We could just barely make out the sounds of Father yelling and stomping in the water outside.
Michael kneeled and reached out his hand. He shuffled across the floor on his knees, whispering itsokayitsokayitsokay.
Our mother pushed herself further under the shelf, a can of tuna digging into her arm.
Michael opened a can and used his hand to waft the smell toward our mother. He whispered itsokayitsokayitsokay.
She lifted her head and crawled out of the pantry. Michael scooped a bit of tuna out with his fingers and lifted it toward her mouth. She opened, wrapping her lips around his fingers, and licked the tuna off. Her eyes went back to the can. He stood up and reached out his hand.
Michael said later that when she put her hand in his, it was cold like the floors in the morning. That it felt like one of the rifles when you first take it out of the shed. He said he almost dropped it.
When he led her down the hall to Father’s room, she was humming quietly and he could feel how scared she was. He said he kept whispering itsokayitsokayitsokay.
She lied down on the pile of towels in Father’s room and fell asleep with her hand still in Michael’s. Toby and I stayed in the kitchen, planning the expedition with thumb tacks and yarn.
Michael came in around dinner time and told us our mother is fragile. Our mother needs gentle care.
They said a sea creature haunts the cave on the other side of the bay. Sometimes, when people told the story, it was a hydra with nine necks like tentacles that wrap around you and squeeze. Other times, it was a siren ghost that sings you to sleep and drowns you in the water.
We lived in a town of fishermen, where stories were always tall and long and skewed and changing and stretching. It was hard to believe much of anything you heard.
The only thing we knew for sure was the migration of the mothers. Even then, we didn’t know when they would come. We learned about it from our fathers, when we asked: where do we come from? How are we made?
The old man with the long, skinny beard on Father’s boat told Toby and me that the bay is an illusion. It’s actually a mirror of our shore line, and as you get closer and closer to the other side, it gets further and further away.
That’s the real monster, he said. You’ll keep sailing and sailing and you’ll never get there. You’ll run out of supplies before you even have a chance to turn back.
Father said that he’d heard from some of his employees on the boat that the other mothers in town talked. They played with their new children. One of them even fashioned clothes out of the fabrics in her house. She tied ribbons in her hair.
The mayor’s son who helps out on the docks told me that his father kisses his mother. She sleeps in his bed.
Our mother started exploring the house, eating tuna with her fingers, licking out the cans and throwing them in the corner of the kitchen. One day, I found our mother lying in the bathtub, the shower head spraying over her body, splashing and flooding the bathroom. She caught some of the water in her mouth and gargled. When she looked at me, she spit the water out and smiled, her teeth gray and green as algae. Our mother liked the water. She was born of it.
Michael said we needed to educate our mother. Teach her the ways of the town like the other mothers. She sat at the table during school time. She had special lessons with Michael during our breaks. He said words to her. He drew figures in his notebook to match.
Fish, he said and pointed.
Our mother watched him with big eyes.
Toby and I were working on our map. Toby was talking about the possibility of booby traps. Poison gas. Trap doors. Trip wires that signal alarms, nets, blow darts. We need to be prepared, he said.
Fish, Michael said again.
Our mother remained quiet, beaming.
Come on, say it. Fish.
Toby sighed, annoyed that something so rudimentary was necessary.
Our mother smiled but refused to speak. Instead, she lifted her hand and touched Michael’s lips with her fingers. Her nails were overgrown, her cuticles broken.
Fish, Michael tried to say again, but our mother pushed her fingers into his mouth.
Toby and I had a stash of supplies in the linen closet. Two shovels, two backpacks, two canteens, eight cans of tuna each. We kept a detailed checklist on the backside of our map. We didn’t want Father to know we were taking things from the house, so we took only one thing a day. Nobody notices a slow robbery.
We wanted go out into the woods and double check that our map was accurate, that it really would only take a day to get there. The flood in the backyard was getting worse and Michael never let us leave the house.
Father was the only person who left—heading to the dock early in the morning, returning at night. I could always hear him. The front door, the steps down the hall, the bedroom door. It was a small house, and, especially after the rains, I knew every inch of it. The squeal of each hinge. The way certain windows rattled when the rain hit them.
One night, after everyone was in bed, Toby and I snuck out our maps and argued about whether or not we should wait for the rains to stop. I thought we could make it across the bay if we portaged to the peninsula and crossed from the point of the shortest distance. Toby was concerned about our ability to bring the treasure back. What if it was too heavy? What if it sunk the boat?
Toby asked me what I would do with my half and I didn’t know how to answer. I imagined dipping my hands in gold coins and rubies and jewels, but I never thought of anything beyond the finding of it, the having.
I want to buy a new house, Toby said.
I looked around our bedroom, the cracks in the floor, the shakey windows, the cots we slept on.
We need a better home for our family, he nobly said.
Toby: the martyr. Toby: my twin. Toby: I never could see anything of myself in him.
We heard a sound from Father’s room. It was a gasp, like he’d stubbed his toe. We creeped into the hallway. Father’s door was across from ours. We put our ears up to the wood.
He was groaning. We could also hear our mother’s humming noise, high pitched like an alarm. Toby cracked open the door. I only caught a glimpse but Father was crouched up on top of our mother, his shirt on but his pants at his ankles and I saw him holding her legs up to her chest, her arms pinned by his other hand. Toby closed the door quickly, but held the knob log enough so the latch sunk into place without a sound.
Father gave us each twenty dollars and sent us to town. He said to take our mother, to buy her some proper clothing.
It was a long walk in the rain, and even our umbrellas and coats couldn’t keep us dry. My nose turned bright red, froze, and dribbled snot the whole way. Toby walked in front, because he was a true explorer. Michael stood next to our mother, held her hand, said things to her like, everyone is going to love you, and, we will always take care of you. Her feet shuffled on the gravel, as if she was trying to paddle them, as if the road was a river.
At the clothing shop, there were four mothers lined up at a table sewing. When we stepped in, the little bell at the doorway rang and everyone looked up. All four mothers had their hair pulled back. They were each wearing a different dress. One had a pattern with little cherries on it. They all smiled their gray teeth at us and returned to their work.
They were an uneasy sight. All cleaned up. All perfect.
Michael was enthralled. He walked right up to their table.
Hello, ladies, he said.
They looked up again. One of them giggled.
I need to purchase a dress like yours for our mother.
He turned and reached his arm out to her. She looked nervous, but stepped forward and took his hand.
Toby was already bored, hiding in the clothing racks, tugging at hangers, pulling his twenty dollars out of his pocket, staring at it, and putting it back in. Our mother’s dress was an inconvenience.
The mother in the cherry patterned dress stood up and shuffled through a bin behind her. She pulled out an emerald green dress and lifted it towards us. Our mother looked skeptical, unsure—but it was hard to know for sure. She always had a forlorn look on her face, a vacantness that I could never pin down.
Michael’s eyes lit up.
Yes, beautiful, he said. He held the fabric between his fingers, lifted it to his face, breathed in deep.
We’ll take it, he said. Can she wear it out?
The other mothers stood up, grouped around our mother, and pulled the towel she was wearing for a dress off of her body. Our mother’s skin was pale, almost green. It reminded me of a salamander, or the belly of a gecko. I remember thinking how different her body was from Father’s, how she looked stronger than him. The muscles in her legs and her arms defined and clenched in the cold.
They slipped the dress over her head. She looked like an imposter.
Michael smiled at her, held her hand, and told her she looked beautiful.
Our mother is beautiful, Michael said to me.
Months passed and the house changed. The floorboards warped and pulled themselves into the air. The rooms contracted. Our kitchen leaned over us, pushing us into each other, forcing our toes to step on other toes. The ceiling leaked in almost every room. We placed buckets under the holes and dumped them out into the flooded yard every morning. The house was shrinking. Sometimes I’d walk down the hallway and I’d feel like the walls were gradually coming closer together, that they’d eventually scrape my shoulders and I’d have to turn my body sideways to get to my bedroom.
Michael let us put on rainboots and run around in the yard, splashing and screaming. Our mother sat in the puddles and ran her fingers through the flooded grass. Her belly was growing big and round. She ate more than ten cans of tuna a day.
Father was angry about how much food our mother was eating. He said we need to be rationing: we weren’t catching any fish. Since the rains began, the tuna were migrating. Father had to go further from the town each day to catch anything. Michael gave her half of his food at every meal. She also got to lick up all the juice out of the cans before they were thrown away.
Michael and our mother moved their lessons to his bedroom. It was one of those times when he wasn’t supervising me that I went out back and waded through the floodwater into the woods. I found a tree that was easy to climb and I sat on a branch that overlooked the house, the road, and all the way down to the shore. I saw the reflection of everything in the water. Our home, doubled.
I thought I could use the treasure to go somewhere else. Somewhere other than this town that relied on fish for everything. Toby could use his half to take care of Father and our mother and Michael. They didn’t need me.
I stayed up in that tree until I started to get a bit hungry. It wasn’t time to eat, but I thought I could probably eat one of the tuna cans Toby and I stashed away without anyone noticing.
On the way back, I realized I could see into Michael’s bedroom window from the yard. Our mother was sitting on the floor of his room with her legs crossed. Her chest was exposed, her great belly bare beneath. Michael was sitting on the floor, facing her, his face buried in her chest. He was suckling the way same way I’ve seen the deer in the woods, a baby animal, selfish and demanding. He was rubbing himself through the fabric of his pants. When I got closer, I could hear a hum coming from our mother, low and deep. I could feel it in my bones.
I ran back into the woods, as far as I could go without stopping. I wanted to get away from the house. Away from Michael and our mother. Away from Toby and the treasure plans. In that house, we were always waiting for something to happen. More fish to come. Mother to speak. The rains to let up. The woods behind the house weren’t waiting for anything. They were just growing and growing, getting more and more wild every day.
I trudged back through the mud and the water once the sun was starting to set, the sky orange and angry. When I got inside the house, all the lights were out. I couldn’t find Toby or Father or Michael. Our mother was in the bathtub, silent, soaking.
Hey, I said, but she didn’t move.
Where is everyone? I asked.
I stepped toward her, but she didn’t acknowledge me until I reached my hand out and, I realized, touched her for the first time. Her skin was rubbery and wet, cold like Michael had said. When my fingers grazed her skin, she turned her head, squinted her eyes, and clamped her teeth down on my arm. I jerked back toward the bathroom door.
Her face looked more pointed than before. She was pale and she had blueish bags under her eyes. Once I’d stepped back, she returned to staring at the wall, as if I had only been a minor disruption in a moment of great concentration.
That’s when I heard a door slam.
I ran into the kitchen. Father emerged from Michael’s room dragging a fully naked Michael by his neck.
Toby, get a rifle from the shed, he said and pulled Michael through the front door.
He said nothing to me. I caught Michael’s eye for a fraction of a second. He looked scared, sorry.
Father pulled him out front, out to the road. Released his neck. Shoved him forward.
Go, he said.
I stood on the porch. Toby ran back from the shed with the rifle and handed it to father, standing at his side. They looked like more of a pair that Toby and I ever had.
Michael was so long and limp in the rain, his hair congealing to his forehead.
Don’t come back, Father yelled. He grabbed the rifle from Toby’s hands and released a shot into the air.
Michael ran, a silhouette like a toy soldier halfway down the road. When he passed under the streetlamp, it looked almost like there were two of him running, his other self reflected in the water.
I wanted to run after him, to tell him we can leave this place behind. We can start somewhere new. We can do whatever we want. I didn’t, though. I stood on the porch and watched my father shoot bullets into the air, cursing and spitting. I watched Toby do the same, repeating the things father said, shaking his fist in the air, snorting and spitting onto the road.
It was the last time I saw Michael.
When he was just a speck in the distance, Father turned to Toby and me and said to go to our room. To stay there.
The maps for the expedition were scattered around the floor by my bed. They looked so childish. I imagined lighting them all on fire. I imagined it catching the drapes and burning down the house. I wondered how long it would burn before the rains extinguished it. If any of us would survive.
I woke up to the sun beaming through the curtains in my bedroom for the first time in months. It wasn’t raining, though the flooding in the yard had not evaporated yet. The sun’s light bounced off the puddles and into my eyes, and I was certain I’d never seen something so bright. The whole world was washed out, painted over with light.
Toby was still asleep.
I checked all the rooms in the house, Father was nowhere to be found. Neither was our mother. The buckets hadn’t been dumped out and they were overflowing, transforming our house into a pond.
When I opened the pantry door, hoping to find our mother crouched under the bottom shelf, hiding from Father, I found our mother’s green dress, damp and bundled up. Our mother wasn’t there, but wrapped up in fabric was a baby. It wasn’t crying, it was humming. I picked it up and carried it out back, where I felt the warmth of the sun on my skin, the kind of yellow light that looks and feels just like gold.
Our mother never returned. It turns out, that night, all the mothers in the town disappeared. The old man with the long, skinny beard told me he saw them all wading into the water. They swam deeper and deeper and he said a few of them were even breaching like dolphins. When I asked him what he was doing out by the water in the heavy weather, he patted my shoulder and sighed.
It’s a seasonal thing, the rains, he said.
Father refused to go into Michael’s room, which seemed to be continually shrinking. The doorframe collapsed on itself, as though it knew it was no longer needed.
Father put the baby’s crib in the kitchen. Toby and I took care of him during the day while Father was on the boat. We kept waiting for his hair to come in like seaweed or for his teeth to push through the gums like seashells emerging from the sand. But he was a perfectly average baby. Pudgy arms, a little colicky. I leaned over his crib and said words to him. Fish, I said. Fish. Fish. He just looked at me with eyes fat as blueberries and reached his hand up toward my mouth.
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